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Managing Your Time

Balancing TF/CA responsibilities with your own graduate work can be a difficult task. Here are some tips for managing your time effectively.

Practice self­discipline. Seek a reasonable balance between teaching and your scholarship. Both are important.

Consider using a Brandeis voicemail account from LTS. It is free, allows students easy access to you, and keeps your phone number confidential.

Take time to think about the tasks that you failed to complete. Try to identify the reason. Was it procrastination, indecision, disorganization, lack of direction/purpose, perfectionism, distraction or interruption, fatigue or sickness?

Prioritize: Set realistic goals for completing difficult tasks. Set long­term and short­term attainable objectives. Meeting these will help bolster your confidence and motivate you to continue with your studies.

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Dealing with Difficult Situations

There are no foolproof strategies for dealing with difficult situations. Even the most experienced teachers are occasionally surprised by the negative reactions of students or unanticipated events. Be prepared to think on your feet to deal effectively with difficult situations as they arise. Keep in mind that being vigilant for early signs of potential problems is the best way to prevent having to deal with a difficult situation in the classroom.

  • Try to support and encourage students. Speaking to students in an accusatory or judgmental manner can provoke student’s to feel defensive. Do not be intimidated by a student who purports to "know it all" or who challenges your statements. Give the student a chance to express an opinion, but do not allow long disruption to the class. Speak with the student privately. Acknowledge the worth of the contributions, but point out the difficulties caused by disruptions.

  • Do not allow a student to stray too far from the topic or material under discussion. Politely but firmly redirect the student to the material at hand.

  • If a student attempts to engage you in a nonproductive argument, offer to speak together after class. Remain calm and as non­judgmental as possible.

  • No student receives special treatment. Remind students that the same options must be offered to every student in the class. Be firm about asserting your authority. If the student is especially persistent, suggest that the matter be taken up with the instructor. Advise the instructor about the problem and the student's impending visit.

  • Some students may try to prey on your good will. Recognize the student's behavior for what it is—an attempt to unfairly influence or intimidate you, but do not become cynical about the intentions of all students.

  • Recognize the TF/CA’s awkward position between undergraduates and the professor. Be judicious in what you say and do. Discuss student problems with the course instructor, but respect student confidentiality.

  • Part of your responsibility as a TF/CA is to be available to students. Keep regular hours and let students know how to get in touch with you. Do not allow a student to pester you incessantly. Schedule a meeting, set time limits, and try to focus on the student's most immediate concerns.

  • Do not hesitate to refer a student elsewhere. Academic Services, staffed by trained professionals, is there to help all students.

  • Consult with the course instructor or program chair before becoming involved in official grievance procedures.

  • In all difficult situations, do your best to maintain your composure and professionalism. Do not respond as if you have been personally attacked (even if you have!). It is not personal; it is professional.

  • Remember that students face problems, academic and nonacademic, every day. Outbursts or disruptive behavior might signal a deeper problem. Extreme cases should be addressed to the instructor or the student's academic dean.

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Writing Letters of Recommendation

Writing a letter of recommendation for a student can be an anxiety producing experience. The Hiatt Career Center suggests to undergraduates that they approach people they feel are most qualified to comment on their performance. Especially in large lecture courses, TFs may have more individual contact with students.

The first question is whether you will write the letter. Can you write an incisive qualified recommendation? That is, do you know the student well? Can you assess his/her abilities? Will the recommendation show the student in a positive light? If not, perhaps it is best to decline.

The second question is whether you should. Is it appropriate for me, as a TF/CA, to write a letter, or would the student be served better by a recommendation from a faculty member? In principle, this is a responsibility of the faculty; a letter from the faculty member of a prestigious graduate program would certainly carry much greater weight. In some cases, however, a joint effort between a TF/CA and a faculty member might be the ideal solution. If you feel comfortable writing a recommendation, ask the student for the following information:

  • The purpose of the recommendation (general, graduate school, specific employer, character reference).

  • A copy of the resume (C.V.) or a brief statement.

  • A copy of a paper written for the course, if available.

  • The recommendation deadline—be absolutely sure to meet it!

Recommendation letters come in many different forms and styles. Approach your advisor or other faculty members for suggestions. The most effective recommendation letters often include the following:

  • How long and in what capacity you have known the student

  • A rating of the student's intellectual ability and growth compared to other students

  • Discussion of the relationship with other students/faculty

  • Assessment of the student’s overall knowledge of the subject

  • Remarks on the student's intellectual curiosity and eagerness to learn

  • Specific examples of the student abilities, conduct, etc.

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Improving Your Teaching

The improvement of one’s teaching is a never­ending process. You need feedback as much as your students do, perhaps more so. Feedback can help you to modify and optimize your teaching, which is so critical at this early stage of your career.

Brandeis has a formal end­of­semester evaluation administered in each class you are a TF/CA. The end­of­semester form will not be returned to you until the beginning of the following semester. The Committee for the Support of Teaching also offers several different midterm assessment forms on their website.

Midterm assessments provide feedback that is exclusively for your use (you need to tell the students this) and will allow you to modify your approach based on student input.

Not only do students appreciate that you are open to their suggestions, but your responsiveness is likely to have a positive impact on your final evaluation—the one that counts!

The following tips can also help you enhance your teaching skills:

  • Invite a peer or a professor to sit in on your section or class to offer a critical review of your performance. Offer to reciprocate.

  • Carefully observe the styles of gifted teachers. How do they structure their classes? Why are their lectures, labs, and/or discussions enjoyable? Can you emulate any of their teaching characteristics?

  • Be open to criticism. Weigh it carefully. Get as much feedback as possible early in the semester to ensure that the course is proceeding on track.

  • Observe students carefully. If they seem distracted, lost, or bored, try to change your teaching style or adjust the level of the material you are presenting.

  • Be proactive if things are not going well. Make a change if a strategy is not working!